Twelve Minutes in my Mind

I pick up my toothbrush at 9:10 p.m., see the round black scab on my cheek in the mirror, imagine someone asking, and compose a reply:

This thing growing on my face was either leprosy or cancer so I showed the dermatologist and she dismissed it with a wave of her hand. That’s just a—no, wait: “showed the dermatologist” period. New sentence: She dismissed it with a flip of her fingers. That’s just a barnacle, a gift from your parents. But it’s on my face, I protested, so she got her nitrogen gun and zapped it for me.

I rehearse this story several times, tweaking sentences, adding stress to “face.” I wish I’d stop writing trivial shit in my head all the time. I peer closely at the scab, consider picking at it.

In the park yesterday, I picked my way through geese, never drive 23rd anymore without seeing five or six long V-formations of Canada geese, flying from lake to golf course and back. At least our roof is mostly done. Only Mexicans do steep roofs like ours and if Trump’s elected, he’ll send them all back. First of February and the tips of branches have already swelled with burgundy buds. Yesterday I walked in shirtsleeves, but today it’s snowing: trees, what are you thinking?

I should wear something to go with boots, but hope it’s a snow day tomorrow, hope I sleep O.K. tonight. Last night my brain wouldn’t shut up. Things I found solutions for between ten when we shut off the light and midnight when I finally fell asleep:

An assignment for next week’s class

Solution to a translation problem I blanked on during the day

The writing and revision of a paragraph for my blog, which was brilliant and which vanished by morning

I’d given up on having anything to make for dinner tonight but suddenly saw the ingredients on my shelves and didn’t need to go to the store after all

I failed to figure out why Trump and Cruz supporters hate everyone not like themselves, but brooded on it at length

In spite of falling asleep late, I startled awake at 5:20 from a dream in which a student was begging me for a sip of my coffee so I finally gave in and his mouth opened wide to gag over the cup, which he then handed back and walked away, undigested food chunks floating in it. Calling Dr. Jung. So what? I offer them nectar of the gods and they give me back crap? Dreams love clichéd metaphors, the nastier the better.

January 2016 was hard: deaths and illnesses among the famous and our friends. Mom said bad news comes in threes. She never said anything about good news. Now I think it’s like the title of a poem I read recently, “whatever it is, it comes in waves.” Can we absorb one more cancer discovery? When Phil turned 70, Judy, who scouts the trail a few steps ahead of us, told him confidently: “70 is when it all starts to fall apart.” This is the last third, maybe the last quarter. How long do I have? If I knew I was dying at 86, say, as my mother did, would I stop screwing around and write the Great American Novel now? Did I get the towels out of the dryer? Going back downstairs to check is too much to ask. I forgot to change that kid’s grade. Why do I remember after I’ve shut down the laptop?

It was Monday and I didn’t sleep well, I explain to myself. Remembering that I only teach one class and chose to do so didn’t matter this morning. I grumped getting up (to age is to whine, says Alameddine) sulked over breakfast even though my nine a.m. class gives me time for breakfast and fussed over having to leave early because I meant to get treats for the office staff—those hardworking secretaries who make teachers’ lives possible—rushed out of the house, stood in the inevitable line waiting for the vanilla frap I knew the student working the front desk wanted, resenting the snow too wimpy to give me the day off.

But then I dropped those goodies in the office, received hugs and happiness for unexpected treats and each banana bread I set down made me lighter. We were doing a prompt and one of my students said, “I love doing these.” They went to work on their stories and for an hour, there was no sound but the clicking of computer keys. Such fine kids! I floated to my car afterwards in light snow, delighted with their writing on the prompt, and thought, what in God’s name was all that stupid whining about?

Still snowing at 9:22 p.m. I wash my face, pick at the black scab on my cheek. It’ll fall off in another day or two and then I won’t have to explain anything. No one asked me about it today. That sort of hurt my feelings. I hope I sleep better tonight. Please don’t tell me that’s the neighbor’s dog barking again. Wait, did I brush my teeth? Touch the bristles: they’re wet. O.K., I’m good.


Posted in Education, Humor, Writing | 7 Comments

Rabih Alameddine’s Unnecessary Woman: An Appreciation

Alameddine’s main character, Aaliya, is an old woman living alone in Beirut. She begins, “You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration.” Already I am smitten. We get history—her forced marriage, coming to terms with her mother, bombing in Beirut—but literature is where this unnecessary woman makes her home.

The book sparkles with literary references and anecdotes, including to Junot Díaz, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Patrick White, David Malouf, Milan Kundera, Gogol, Roberto Bolaño…

Reviewing Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The Dream of My Return, translated by Katherine Silver (The New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016) Norman Rush muses on the “canonical mold” of the superfluous man, Turgenev’s 19th century hero. He traces the lineage of such characters—Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Melville’s Bartleby, contemporary examples. Castellanos Moya’s hero is a variation on the type, and the discussion is interesting: I refer you to the review. Parenthetically, Rush allows that he knows of “no parallel tradition of applying that 19th century coinage to female characters: there is no category of ‘superfluous woman.’”

There is now. And Alameddine chose the title adjective with intimate knowledge of the literary traditions that do or do not contain his protagonist:

Joseph Roth ends Flight Without End with the sentence: ‘No one in the whole world was as superfluous as he.’ I beg to differ. No one in the whole world is as superfluous as I . . . I am the one who has no occupation, no desire, no hope, no ambition, not even any self-love.

Aaliya’s observation in a dark moment is followed by a meditation on writers who committed suicide: Arbus, Hemingway, Plath, Woolf, Borowski… Unlike them, she gets over the urge. For that also, I love her. Her name means “the high one.” She lives in books, is a translator and at odds with the world into which she’s born. Hello, my sister. Taken out of school and married off at sixteen, she observes: “marriage is a most disagreeable institution for an adolescent.”

…epigraphs by Fernando Pessoa in his Alberto Caeiro persona, by Marianne Moore and Franz Kafka. Poem excerpts by Brodsky, Larkin, Rilke…

Her husband divorced her long ago. “Nothing in our marriage became him like leaving it,” she paraphrases. Name that play. Childless, she doesn’t remarry, runs a bookstore, starts translating a new book every January. Like Emily Dickinson, who put her poems in a trunk, Aaliya stacks manuscripts in boxes, fills the spare bedroom to the ceiling. Emily on steroids.

… references to Eudora Welty, Camus, Faulkner, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes, Proust, Alice Munro, Joyce, Primo Levi…

Brodsky disparaged Constance Garnett’s translations of the Russians, but Aaliya thinks it well to remember that before Garnett’s efforts, none of us could read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Yes, she admits, Garnett skipped over words she didn’t know, cut long passages, and worst of all, wrote in the English of her times. “Using Edwardian prose for Dostoyevsky is like adding milk to good tea. Tfeh!”

She meditates on problems in her own work, the conundrums translators love. I’m often plagued by the absence of pronouns in my Spanish to English translations and related readily:

A troublesome issue arises in translating Sebald into Arabic. His style,drawn-out and elongated sentences that wrap around the page and their reader, seems at first glance to be an ideal fit for Arabic, where use of punctuation is less formal. (Translating Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis was a relative breeze.) However, Sebald’s ubiquitous insertion of Jacques Austerlitz’s tongue into the unnamed narrator’s first-person narrative was difficult to convey precisely, since Arabic,like Spanish, drops pronouns more often than English or German. Sebald’s I spoke for at least two people.

Aaliya has not tried to publish her translations. “Translating, not publishing, is what I bet my life on.” She quotes Pessoa:

The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.

…Walter Benjamin, Javier Marías, Italo Calvino, Virgil, Henry Miller…my rough count of literary references came to 132… Foucault, Conrad, Muriel Spark, Vallejo, Edna O’Brien, Bruno Schulz…paraphrases and quotes without attribution:

Water, water everywhere…

Into the valley of Death/rode the six hundred…

Yo, la peor de todas

I, the worst of women. My translation. “Women” is not in the original.

Many I don’t know: Nooteboom, Karasu, Imru’ al-Qays, al-Mutanabbi, Nadas, Claudio Magris, Samir Kassir, Danilo Kis, Kertész…

Aaliya rode out the war in her Beirut apartment, wonders “what it’s like to live in a reliable country.” When the war ended in 1990, Beirutis didn’t think it would happen again. But “In 2008, the Shiites and Sunnis—a plague o’ both your houses—clashed briefly and violently along these streets.” Shakespeare again. Aaliya thinks “we are condemned to repeat the past whether we remember it or not.” At a time when Israel was bombing Beirut, she confides:

I’m sure you’ve noticed that I dislike Israel, that ridiculous pygmy state dripping with self-overestimation, yet many of the giants I respect are Jewish. There is no contradiction. I identify with outsiders, with the alienated or dispossessed. Like many nation-states, including its sister pygmy state Lebanon, Israel is an abomination.

Israelis are Jews who have misplaced their sense of humor.

Produced by outsiders, great literature is colorblind, gender-proof, able to leap nation-state borders in a single bound. Its creators look past nationality to see humanity, an ability that allows a man like Alameddine to shape this woman who speaks to me, with whom I want to have coffee and swap translation stories. Toward the end she quotes:

I am nothing.

I’ll always be nothing.

I can’t even wish to be anything.

Aside from that, within me I have all the dreams of the world.

“Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s bisexual dandy poet, wrote that. He is welcome in my home anytime,” Aaliya concludes. And she is welcome in mine.

Posted in Education, Translation, Writing | 1 Comment


Downsizing. I contemplate it often lately. Haven’t done anything. Just contemplating. We’re in the right age group for it. I think of Mary from yoga class. She and her husband sold their Wash Park bungalow, bought a tiny downtown condo, and jettisoned three-fourths of their possessions. I was in awe. Beverly, my college roommate, posted that she and Ralph were exhausted, spent the weekend with help from children and grandchildren, sorting and boxing and getting the house ready to sell. She despairs of being able to let stuff go, found some of my old poems and letters. “OMG, Bev,” I messaged her, “burn that stuff immediately.” Just hearing those things existed made me blush: that girl was embarrassing. Another of Bev’s friends commented: “we did that. You’ll feel so much better when you’re not burdened by all that stuff.”

Possessions as burdens. Proponents of such concepts sound like socialists, or maybe saints. If we’re good capitalists, the more possessions the better, right? Now I’m thinking: wrong. What if we need to move someplace smaller, less difficult to maintain? A real estate agent walks through here, says, “you’d need to lose 75% of the books first.” Books scare people. Losing half of them will take us years.

Back in the 1980s, we came home to find we’d been burglarized. In the midst of the first rude shock, feeling invaded, the phone rang and I blurted the news to our friend Mabel, who said, “and do you feel lighter now?” Her response seemed unfeeling and flippant at the time, but has stayed with me all these years. Now I look at my stuff and wonder about feeling lighter if I let it go. Oh, and do I need to mention, they didn’t steal a single book?

Cleaning out my mother’s house after her death, my brother and I pulled stacks of clothes from overstuffed closets. There were stained and yellowed shirts and slacks beginning to rot on hangers, clothes she and husband, who died the year before, had not worn in decades. I sorted garments and shoes, threadbare towels and plastic margarine tubs into piles and my brother drove loads to the dump, stuff even charities wouldn’t take.

This Christmas Phil and I decided one of the biggest stressors of the season was the getting of gifts—shopping, selecting, spending, wrapping—the whole routine. December is always a blow to our otherwise modest fixed income management. We informed family and friends: give us consumables if you must give something. No more things. And vowed to buy each other nothing. Besides the customary cash, Phil sent the grandkids books from his own library, something he’s never done before, thoughtfully selecting volumes for each of them.

Christmas morning we briefly missed the gift ritual, but also felt liberated. Phil makes a special breakfast Christmas Day, this year decided on blintzes topped with sour cream, blueberries and bananas. With no gifts to open, we lingered over the meal. No cleaning up the living room, no filling the recycling bin with wrapping paper. I made mole for our guests that evening. Phil said we were having Hanu-Navidad. We gave our friends gift cards to a bookstore we like to support, but next year, Phil told them, we’ll make a donation to a charity in their name.

We called the kids as they were opening gifts, and since their Skype wasn’t working, they passed the phone around and narrated. “I’m opening the green paper wrapped box, and there’s this tape—oh, that didn’t go well.” As each book was revealed, Phil was able to say, “I remembered that you liked the Prince Valiant, so I thought you’d appreciate…” Or, “given your passion for film, Roger Ebert’s take on…” Their basket for us came via bike messenger, all the makings for a gourmet Italian meal. And my daughter gave us gift cards for Olive Garden. It was also an Italian holiday.

Yesterday I began to fill a box with books I thought I could live without. My modest goal is to eliminate stacks, fit the books into existing shelves. We’ll see how that goes. I’m not making any rash promises. I hear the most popular New Year’s resolution is to lose weight and 92% of them fail by January 31.

We set aside money we’d have spent on each other and took a day to go clothes shopping together, a new ritual we enjoy, probably because it’s an annual affair. Otherwise neither of us enjoys shopping. Clothes are also consumable: no help for it, they sometimes have to be replaced. I try to toss a garment for each new one I buy. I got something new to wear back to school the first day, to have a ready answer to the inevitable and ubiquitous question: what did you get for Christmas?

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What I Read in 2015

Twenty-seven books. When I taught full time, I read six books a year. Another retirement bonus: recovery of the reading time I enjoyed as a child. Even then, my favorite reading was in bed. Now I go to bed early and read for an hour. Delicious.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra, 2011, translated by Megan McDowell

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner, 1971.  “I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known …? It is not quite true that you can’t go home again…but it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces … consumed too much transportation, have lived too shallowly in too many places.”

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, Peter Manseau. Grim and delightful at the start, but flawed, rushed ending. How often that seems true of novels.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast. Graphic memoir about the horrendous experience of caring for resistant aging parents.

Home, Toni Morrison, 2012

La Sed de la Mariposa, Agustín Cadena, 2014, his best young adult novel to date

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller’s Tale From Mexico, Sybille Bedford, 1953. Travel writing from another time is instructive, especially if the writing is good and well-informed. Bedford gives a nutshell of Mexican history in “the tierra templada,” where “the known Mexico begins, the Mexico of the wonderful climate, the Mexico of history and archaeology, the traveller’s Mexico. Here, between the Twenty-second Parallel and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, between the Pacific and the Gulf, on the Mesa, in the two Sierras, down on the hot strips of coast and the flats of Yucatan: everything happened—the Aztecs and the Conquest, the Silver rush and Colonial Spain, the Inquisition and the War of Independence, the Nineteenth Century of Revolutions and Hacienda Life, of the Church Rampant and the Church at Bay; General Santa Ana, always treacherous, always defeated, rattling his wooden leg for office, and Juarez tough with Robespierrean obstinacy and virtue; the shadowy reign of Maximilian and the harsh, prosperous reign of Díaz,; Civil War, Banditry, Partition of the Land, President Calles and President Cardenas, the Oil Rush and the March of US Time.”

Another Country, James Baldwin, 1962. One of our finest writers, complex, unrelenting and true. A privileged white character details the position police occupy—a thankless one—between the wealthy and the poor:

“She had never had to deal with a policeman in her life, and it had never entered her mind to feel menaced by one. Policemen were neither friends nor enemies; they were part of the landscape, present for the purpose of upholding law and order; and if a policeman—for she had never thought of them as being very bright—seemed to forget his place, it was easy enough to make him remember it. Easy enough if one’s own place was more secure than his, and if one could bring to bear a power greater than his own. For all policemen were bright enough to know who they were working for, and they were not working, anywhere in the world, for the powerless.”

Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World.

Whiter Than Snow, Sandra Dallas. This bestseller fits my definition of a potato chip book, although I must give a nod to her research on life in a Colorado mining town.

How It All Began, Penelope Lively. Brit writer I’ve meant to try for years. Good.

Looking for Alaska. YA book I read to see why the kids like John Green. A love story, drug and alcohol use, wild pranks, and maybe a suicide. The teen characters are outsiders, smarter than the adults. In other words, a fantasy novel.

In the Night of Time, Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Edith Grossman. On theexpatriate/refugee experience: “If no one recognizes you and no one names you, little by little you cease to exist.”

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman.

Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver

Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir, Penelope Lively. “Autobiographical memory is random, non-sequential, capricious and without it we are undone.”

Indian Nocturne, Antonio Tabucchi, 1984, Translated by Tim Parks

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, an immigrant experience novel.

An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine, Grove Press, 2013. This literature and translation loving book must have its own blog, coming soon.

The Hakawati, Rabih Alameddine. In the tradition of As I Lay Dying or The Death of Artemio Cruz, but from the POV of the son whose father is dying. Interlaced with A Thousand and One Nights stories, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Calvino’s Italian Folktales, Lebanese tales and a dozen other sources, updated and spun a la Alameddine

Poems of Fernando Pessoa, trans by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown. Ah, Pessoa, all your personalities!

I’ve no ambitions or desires.

My being a poet isn’t an ambition.

It’s my way of being alone.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. What can I say? I’d never read it.

The Good Soldier, Ford Maddox Ford, 1915. “She listened to you and took in what you said, which, since the record of humanity is a record of sorrows, was as a rule something sad.”

The Inheritors, William Golding, 1955. Someone said this was his best novel, not Lord of the Flies, which all 8th graders read today. Riveting.

Telegraph Avenue. Michael Chabon

The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, Hanan Al-Shaykh

The Boys, Toni Sala, translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Catalan novel set in Spain after the 2008 recession

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